A View of the Empire at Sunset

A View of the Empire at Sunset

by Caryl Phillips


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Award-winning author Caryl Phillips presents a biographical novel of the life of Jean Rhys, the author of Wide Sargasso Sea, which she wrote as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

Caryl Phillips’s A View of the Empire at Sunset is the sweeping story of the life of the woman who became known to the world as Jean Rhys. Born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams in Dominica at the height of the British Empire, Rhys lived in the Caribbean for only sixteen years before going to England. A View of the Empire at Sunset is a look into her tempestuous and unsatisfactory life in Edwardian England, 1920s Paris, and then again in London. Her dream had always been to one day return home to Dominica. In 1936, a forty-five-year-old Rhys was finally able to make the journey back to the Caribbean. Six weeks later, she boarded a ship for England, filled with hostility for her home, never to return. Phillips’s gripping new novel is equally a story about the beginning of the end of a system that had sustained Britain for two centuries but that wreaked havoc on the lives of all who lived in the shadow of the empire: both men and women, colonizer and colonized.

A true literary feat, A View of the Empire at Sunset uncovers the mysteries of the past to illuminate the predicaments of the present, getting at the heart of alienation, exile, and family by offering a look into the life of one of the greatest storytellers of the twentieth century and retelling a profound story that is singularly its own.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374283612
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 05/22/2018
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Caryl Phillips is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, including The Lost Child (FSG, 2015), Dancing in the Dark, Crossing the River, and Color Me English. His novel A Distant Shore won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize; his other awards include the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and lives in New York.

Read an Excerpt


Going Home

The bleak afternoon had been made all the more dispiriting by having to overhear Leslie on the telephone busying himself with his attempts to make arrangements for their potential sea voyage. Finally, her husband sat down heavily in the armchair and began to annoy her by continually seeking reassurance that the recent misunderstanding between them was now resolved. After sharing a life together for nearly eight years, her husband still seems incapable of admitting that things between them have never been quite right. He has, as he promised her he would, attempted to provide her with a stable financial environment that might compensate for her difficult down-at-heel years on the Continent, but his efforts in this department have been an unquestionable failure. Keen to please her in other respects, he has tried to demand little of her in the way of an explanation of both her past and her present, and she has certainly never pressed him about his own history, but as a consequence, she often feels as though they barely know each other and she wonders if the decent thing to do would be to release this man from what he once referred to as "occasionally boorish behaviour."

She is standing in deep shadow to the side of the bay window in their lacklustre Bloomsbury living room and staring out at the leafless oak trees that decorate the iron-gated square. Then, recognizing that she has temporarily forsaken her husband, she turns towards him and smiles weakly, and Leslie's nervous face lights up with relief.

Eventually her tired husband empties his pipe and slowly rises from the armchair. He slips on his jacket and overcoat and cheerily announces that he is stepping out for a twilight stroll. She hears the front door rattle shut and then looks down into the lamplit street and watches him striding away from the house, and this is her prompt to pick up the small stool and carry it through into the bedroom. Having carefully eased the shabby suitcase from its hiding place on top of the narrow wardrobe, she places it lengthwise on the bed and opens it in a manner that causes the dusty object to unexpectedly resemble a book. Only now (as she tries to ignore the freckles of age that are beginning to pepper the backs of her hands) does it occur to her that there are two problems. First, she is unsure of just how long Leslie imagines they might tarry in the West Indies; second, she doesn't own anything that will be even vaguely suitable once they reach their tropical destination. In England she has come to understand that a nice bright shawl and a decent pair of shoes will typically suffice to fool most people, but back home eyes are more discerning and she will be held to higher standards. Once she returns to the West Indies, she has no desire to make an exhibition of herself.

She sits wearily on the edge of the bed and tries hard to reconcile herself to the fact that a woman who has journeyed even a short distance beyond the age of forty no longer has any right to expect admiring glances, but she continues to find it difficult to abandon all hope. Of course, money would help to ease the embarrassment of the spectacle she presents, but any mention of the thorny subject tends to plunge Leslie into a monosyllabic mood. Last night, however, her husband surprised her with talk of an unforeseen windfall and the possibility of a voyage to the West Indies. She stands and opens both the top and the bottom drawers of the dresser and confronts the reality of her situation; it is true, there is not a single article of clothing that merits serious consideration for the upcoming journey, for, having been washed and ironed too frequently, all of her clothes are shiny and hideous in appearance. Having closed the drawers to the dresser, she shuts the empty suitcase and turns the key in the tiny lock. Leslie's frustrating telephone calls have led her to believe that it might well be weeks before her husband secures confirmation of their passage, for apparently winter is the most popular season in which to set sail for the region. This being the case, there is still time for her to broach the idea of a shopping expedition, but not quite yet, for betraying either enthusiasm or anxiety has never played any part in the detached manner in which she generally likes to conduct herself with her overly sensitive husband.

Last Saturday night there was no need for Leslie to burst into The Rose and Crown and embarrass her in front of everyone. He took her firmly by the arm and ordered her to be quiet, and then topped his performance by apologizing to the stupid landlord for her behaviour. ("I'm so sorry, but I'm afraid there's a little bit of a drink problem.") But what she was saying was correct: unless somebody woke up and took notice, this new chancellor, Herr Hitler, would soon be tramping his muddy boots all over the map of Europe. It wasn't as though anybody in the pub disagreed with her, but at some point the landlord must have telephoned her husband, for suddenly Leslie made his entrance and began to coax her towards the door, all the while urging her, with an impatient sharpness, to please moderate her behaviour. When she started to shout, he barked at her in a firm whisper, telling her to either hold her tongue or keep it down. "You seem to be unaware of the ill nature of the emotions you arouse." She snatched her arm away and smartened up her dress with the palm of her hands, then she reminded him that the only reason she had come out for a quiet drink to begin with was to get away from his miserable presence, which was creating a foul atmosphere in their rooms. Once they were out on the pavement, and safely beyond the hearing of those in the pub, Leslie stared at her with a strangely distracted look on his face before raising his tone and beginning to affect a modulation that the poor man clearly hoped might come across as authoritative. "Why, Gwen, do you insist on leaving your good sense in glass after glass of wine? I'm afraid I simply don't understand you."

All day Sunday she refused to talk to him, although he tried desperately to be pleasant. He asked her to please try and understand why he had been forced to remove her from the pub. "Dearest, it was a bad business. You were talking loudly to yourself, and the patrons were simply ignoring you." But what rot, they were not ignoring her, they were asking if she was actually in sympathy with this Herr Hitler, which they must have known was a stupid question. "Of course I'm not," she said. "I speak French, not German. Why would I want to begin the process of acquiring another bloody language?" By late Monday afternoon she had decided to allow things between herself and Leslie to thaw a little, for she could sense that her demure husband was troubled by a letter he had received in the morning's post. She tied on a headscarf and, without a trace of bitterness, asked if there was anything he would like her to pick up, as she intended to venture out to the shops. A newspaper, perhaps? Her husband smiled and shook his head. "No, thank you, Gwendolen. I'll just listen to the evening news on the wireless." When she returned, he poured them both a glass of sherry and then looked up and wondered if she might consider discontinuing her two-night exile on the sofa. Before she had time to frame a response, he pressed on and shared with her today's surprising revelation regarding an unexpected legacy from his late father, the Reverend Tilden Smith. He held the solicitor's embossed stationery in both hands as though it were some kind of offering and suggested that now that he appeared to be "in funds" it might make sense to think about renting a nicer place, perhaps in Chelsea. Meanwhile, he wondered if she would be amenable to his treating them both to a voyage to the West Indies, for he understood how desperately she wished once again to see her birthplace. He paused, his brow wrinkled in perplexity as though unsure how his suggestion might be received, but she said nothing and so he felt obliged to continue. He informed her that he had some inkling of how much it might mean to her to reacquaint herself with her island. Was a West Indian sea voyage something she might consider?


The Letter

The short note had evidently been typed on an old machine with keys that were misaligned, and then folded into an envelope and addressed with a painstakingly precise hand. It was difficult to read all of the words, for the imprint of some of the letters created only an indistinct smudge and the number of brief handwritten emendations suggested that her brother was most likely mortified by the limitations of the instrument, whose ribbon was also in need of replacement. Owen had written to her "in the hope that she might find it in her heart to forgive his recent silence," and he explained that he had been suffering some difficulties with his health. He had, however, been pleased to receive her communication with the exciting news of her impending voyage, and he now wished to broach a matter of some delicacy. Straightaway, he wanted to stress that it was not his intention to press for repayment of the five-pound note he had sent to her earlier in the year, but he once again asked that she never mention the offering in the presence of his wife. Clearly her sister-in-law's sentiment that she was little more than a pretentious dilettante remained unchanged, and she fully understood her brother's dread. After all, he was unemployed and struggling to support Dorothy and their six-year-old son, so the revelation that he had given money to his self-indulgent sister would most likely strike a body blow to his marriage.

The letter had arrived with the second post, and she had sat huddled in the armchair and read the three concise paragraphs by the light of the dim bulb in the metal standard lamp. She then placed the single sheet of paper on the low table in front of her and made her way across the room, where she filled the kettle and proceeded to boil some water for tea. Having made a particularly strong cup, she returned to the armchair and reread the letter, once again noting the perturbed but scrupulously polite tone in which it was written. And then she read it once more. Her brother had recently returned from Australia with yet another failed business venture to his name, and she worried greatly about his state of mind. In fact, her childhood memories of the free-spirited older brother she so admired were now in danger of being permanently obscured by the words of this frightened, guilt-stricken man who was writing to her from some unfashionable suburb south of London.

That evening her husband returned from having spent the greater part of the day visiting various West End travel agencies. He sat and threaded his hands together before informing her that because most vessels were already overbooked and the shipping lines were operating a sparse midwinter schedule, it was now clear that they would have to wait until February to undertake their voyage. The good news was, however, that he had gone ahead and purchased their tickets. In the meantime, he wondered if they might perhaps seize the opportunity provided by the delay and take advantage of the unseasonably mild weather by embarking upon a weekend-long excursion to the Sussex coast. Doing so, they would be able to temporarily escape London and take in some of the English countryside, but he spoke to her as though he were tendering the glories of pastoral England as some kind of gift. All those cows lolling around, she thought, and idle sheep, and silly little bushy fences. A gift would be the chance to see her thirteen-year-old daughter in Holland and once again try to forge some kind of relationship with the girl. Or perhaps Maryvonne could come and visit with them in London? Why spend this sudden influx of money on Sussex when she longed to see her somewhat truculent child? She looked across at Leslie, his eyes now closed and his head thrown back onto the antimacassar as though listening to his favourite Brahms or Handel on the wireless, and she wanted to tell him that his beloved English countryside held no interest for her, but she decided to be generous and leave the exhausted man in peace.

Later that evening, after the regular whine of his breathing suggested that he had finally succumbed to sleep, she eased out of her narrow bed and made her way into the living room, where she poured a large glass of red wine. She sat back on the dimpled leather sofa and cradled the wine in both hands. No doubt her husband had convinced himself that after a relaxing trip to the Sussex coast he might look forward to a marked improvement in her behaviour. This was precisely the kind of phrase that Leslie loved to use. "Marked improvement." The truth is, Leslie should have been a prep school master or a man of the cloth like his father. She took another sip of wine and then slipped the letter out of its envelope and began to reread it. To her mind, as a young man her brother had carried on with an admirable streak of rebelliousness, although there were those who expected better from the privileged child of a colonial doctor. Sadly, his subsequent career failures in Canada, and more recently in Australia, had evidently left him a reduced man. Having received the surprising news from his sister that she intended to return home for a short visit, he was now asking her to help him repair some of the damage he had caused in his youth, but he was framing his request as though he bore little real responsibility for his earlier actions. She took yet another sip of red wine and replaced Owen's letter in its envelope.


Rivers and Mountains

Last night, after she had finished the red wine and then discovered where Leslie had hidden the bottle of whisky, she clumsily knocked over an empty glass and watched as it spiraled to the floor and smashed. Almost immediately her glum- looking husband appeared in the doorway in his belted dressing gown, and as she knelt and began to gather up the pieces, he gazed down at her with a strange combination of poorly disguised exasperation and forgiveness. His intrinsic kindness annoyed her, and she rose unsteadily to her feet and told him that when they returned from the West Indies he should forget about the idea of using what remained of his father's money and moving into a more spacious Chelsea flat. Going their separate ways might well be a better option. Leslie said nothing and stared blankly at her before slowly turning and trudging back in the direction of the bedroom. She was actually offering her husband a chance to unshackle himself from the past eight years, but the stubborn man seemed incapable of accepting the fact that his wife was, and always would be, beyond his control. Over the years she often asked herself what on earth would have happened to him if she had not entered his life. Has he ever considered this? They both know that he has neither the resources, nor is he cut from the right cloth, to have ever contemplated joining a gentlemen's club where he might while away the hours and pretend to prefer the civilized company of other men as a substitute for his failure to establish a satisfactory relationship with the opposite sex. Without her he would, she imagines, most likely have already drifted into a single room somewhere on the Pentonville Road and be attempting to eke out a bachelor existence on the fringes of so-called literary London. Instead, the poor man has a wife whose looks have long since fled the scene, and who no longer merits a second glance. It is clear that she is a woman who is utterly incapable of helping her husband achieve any form of social or professional elevation, so why on earth can't he accept how things are? After all, he is still handsome enough to attract another woman, but sadly, timid Leslie will most likely never find anybody else, for it is simply not in his nature to extend himself when confronted with the tyranny of female charm. He did so with her, but she can see in his sometimes dejected eyes that he now understands this to have been a mistake, for, as was the case with his first wife, he has absolutely no notion of how to bring a woman to heel.


Excerpted from "A View of the Empire at Sunset"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Caryl Phillips.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

I Going Home 1

II Home 17

III Aunt Clarice 69

IV Performance 91

V Love 125

VI Continental Drift 197

VII Mr. and Mrs. Smith 227

VIII Two Journeys 253

IX All at Sea 267

X A Now Empty World 289

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